Froome could face lengthy cycling ban
Chris Froome could miss most of next season after a urine sample he gave at this year's La Vuelta was found to contain twice the permitted concentration of asthma drug Salbutamol.
The 32-year-old Team Sky rider may also lose his victory in that race - the first by a British cyclist - and be unable to defend his Tour de France title next July or attempt to win a third straight Grand Tour title at the Giro d'Italia in May.
The adverse analytical finding occurred in a routine test after the Vuelta's 18th stage on September 7 - a day that saw Froome respond to a disappointing ride the day before by stretching his lead over rival Vincenzo Nibali on the last climb.
Conducted by the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation, the independent body set up by the International Cycling Union (UCI), the test found the concentration of Salbutamol in Froome's urine sample was 2,000 nanograms per millilitre (ng/mL), double the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) limit of 1,000 ng/mL.
Salbutamol, which is also marketed as Ventolin, is widely used by asthma sufferers, most commonly in an inhaler, to relax the muscles in the airway. A member of the beta-2 agonist family of drugs, Salbutamol is banned by WADA when taken intravenously or in pill form - as research suggests large doses administered like this can boost performance - but asthma sufferers are allowed to take up 1,600 micrograms over 24 hours, without exceeding 800 micrograms (mcg) every 12 hours. A typical dosage, or puff, is 100 mcg.
In a statement issued by Team Sky, Froome said: "It is well known that I have asthma and I know exactly what the rules are. I use an inhaler to manage my symptoms (always within the permissible limits) and I know for sure that I will be tested every day I wear the race leader's jersey.
"My asthma got worse at the Vuelta so I followed the team doctor's advice to increase my Salbutamol dosage. As always, I took the greatest care to ensure that I did not use more than the permissible dose."
Froome, who records his Salbutamol use on his doping control forms, was informed of the adverse finding on September 20, the day he capped a stunning season with a bronze-medal ride in the time trial at the Road World Championships.
In a statement, the UCI said Froome's B sample - athletes' anti-doping samples are split into A and B samples as a fail-safe precaution - had confirmed the results of the initial test. The Swiss-based body added that under its rules Froome is not subject to a mandatory suspension.
The next stage in the process will be for Froome and Team Sky to come up with a scientifically-backed explanation for why the September 7 sample contained too much Salbutamol and the 20 other tests during the race did not.
Team principal Dave Brailsford said: "There are complex medical and physiological issues which affect the metabolism and excretion of Salbutamol.
"We're committed to establishing the facts and understanding exactly what happened on this occasion.
"I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for Salbutamol."
The debate will focus on when Froome took his last dose of the drug, how dehydrated he was and if anything else he was taking or eating may have had an impact.
In a message posted on his twitter account, Froome wrote: "Thank you for all the messages of support this morning. I am confident that we will get to the bottom of this.
"Unfortunately I can't share any more information than I already have until the enquiry is complete."
There are several precedents tfor what might happen next, as Italian rider Alessandro Petacchi was given a one-year ban for taking too many puffs at the 2007 Giro. He was stripped of the five stages he won - his Salbutamol concentration was 1,320 ng/mL.
Leonardo Piepoli returned a sample with an even higher concentration of the drug than his compatriot on the same day but was not banned as he was registered in Monaco, whose cycling authorities chose not to pursue the matter.
But a third Italian rider, Diego Ulissi, was given a nine-month ban in January 2015 after a sample he gave at the Giro was found to contain a similar amount of Salbutamol as Froome's.